You didn’t notice, but throughout the last year and in probably more ways than one, the city of Nîmes touched your life.
This Provençal city, once known as a jewel of the Gallo-Roman empire (having already been a jewel among Celtic and Bronze Age settlements), enjoyed a long period of affluence and influence exemplified in the elegant Maison Carrée,
And the Nîmes amphitheater.
All three landmarks still stand, and the arena is still in active use today.
And how does any of this touch your life, you wonder? Maybe you attended a bullfight in the arena?
Or a rock concert? (Dire Straits? Björk, Justice, Elton John, Radiohead, Blink 182. . .?) Bullfights and rock concerts are regulars on the Nîmes arena’s calendar of events.
The amphitheatre, built between the 1st and 2nd centuries at the height of Roman opulence and power, was one of the original venues for spectacular shows of — how should I put this delicately? — systematized, government-endorsed, culturally-engrained, fabulously-popular blood sport.
When Nimes’ importance was at its apex, this place was a slaughterhouse. Make that a slaughterhouse for voyeurs. Historians estimate that tens of thousands of animals and even more humans died cruel deaths in arenas like this one in Nimes, built expressly for gladiatorial gaming.
As well as being a marvel of engineering, it became a famous gathering place for satisfying blood lust. Grisly but glamorized, the one-on-one combats drew crowds of 24,000 into its marble and gloriously ornamented 34 terraces. Gladiators — both men and women, did you know that? You’ve heard of the Amazones? — spent their short lives in training, and though life expectancy was bleak (few lived past 30; most died in their early 20’s), it was considered an honor to fight in this arena. It was in the fight to the death – and death was the one sure thing in the ring — that you attained some scrap of glory. This, by proving your stoicism.
“He vows to endure to be burned, to be bound, to be beaten, and to be killed by the sword.”
(The gladiator’s oath as cited by Petronius)
And from a scholar of Roman history:
The gladiator held a morbid fascination for the ancient Romans. Their blood was considered a remedy against impotence, and the bride whose hair had been parted by the spear of a defeated gladiator was thought to enjoy a fertile married life. Although their lives were brutal and short, gladiators often were admired for their bravery, endurance, and willingness to die. In forfeiting their lives in the arena, the gladiator was thought to honor the audience, and glory was what it could offer in return. They were depicted in mosaics, on lamps and funerary monuments, and were the object of graffiti—in this case, boasts written by the gladiators themselves: “Celadus the Thracian, thrice victor and thrice crowned, the young girls’ heart-throb” and “Crescens the Netter of young girls by night.” But, even in victory, gladiators were infamous. They remained outcasts of society and were regarded no differently than criminals or members of other shameful professions (cf. Tacitus,Annals, I.76, commenting on Drusus, who took pleasure in the shedding of blood “however vile”). And yet, as Tertullian exclaims, “Next taunts or mutual abuse without any warrant of hate, and applause, unsupported by affection….The perversity of it! They love whom they lower; they despise whom they approve; the art they glorify, the artist they disgrace” (De Spectaculus, XXII).
Gladiators, in spite of the inevitably gruesome end to their careers, and although they didn’t quite enjoy the status of rock stars of their times, (they were, after all, mostly slaves, prisoners ,or criminals of war), did get to wear a fair share of bling : the pugnum, iaculum, verutum, and the occasional martiobarbulli, shields and weapons and death accoutrement that weighed upwards of 20 kilograms.
And gladiators had the satisfaction of knowing they were at least honorable tributes to the Gods.
And they were given one last big meal before stumbling out into the scorching sun, the tumult of cheering crowds and the jaws, say, of a lion.
All putting the glad in gladiator.
Nîmes has touched you this year if you heard of something called “The Hunger Games” — if you read the novel depicting a grim post-apocalyptic future where youths are forced to hunt down and kill one another for a leering public, or if you were one of the hundreds of thousands worldwide who spent over $214 million during the opening week to see the film. Chances are, you couldn’t escape Nîmes’ mortifying reach.
Here’s where Nîmes and its magnificent arena stand as a cautionary tale. The amphitheater reminds of how a great world power, (here I’m talking about Rome’s), while spiraling into the heights of artistic and cultural and scientific splendor reaches a pitch where its desires-run-amok plummet into desires-run-aground.
But you were among the select few on the planet who’s never heard of “The Hunger Games”? You were ice fishing in Reykyavik, maybe? Or herding yaks in Bajanchongor? Maybe you were hunkering in a troglodyte abbey up on a mountaintop? Or you were into Downton Abbey?
Still, you were touched by Nîmes.
Right now, as a matter of fact, wherever you are reading this post, chances are you’re touched by Nimes.
At least your legs are.
And your seat.
Denim: de Nîmes. Literally: from Nîmes. The name is a shortened version of serge de Nîmes, “serge” being a kind of heavy cotton twill that came from Nîmes.
And “jeans”? From the French name for the Italian city Genoa, where the first “deNîmes” were manufactured for sailors.
And since we’re on the topic, Levi Strauss?
He was actually Löb Strauß, but changed to Levi when he, a German Jew, emigrated from Bavaria through New York City’s Ellis Island, then continued to San Francisco during the Gold Rush of the late 1800’s. It was there where Strauß partnered with a Latvian, Jacob Davis, to manufacture what both men hoped would be the sturdiest work pants ever.
How to make them rip-resistant? Plug in copper rivets at all the strategic points of stress, of course. Because unlike today, starched ripless denims, not saggy shredded ones, were the whole point.
Denims. From Nîmes. From Italy. From Bavaria. From Latvia. From San Fransisco.
Now you know how Nîmes touched you figuratively.
And, um, figuratively.
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.